Something to Write About: Experiential and Observational Learning in the Creative Nonfiction Workshop
Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman | September 2019
There is a disconnect between what we demand of our creative nonfiction (CNF) students—observe and record vivid details from real life, obtain exact dialogue from interesting people, witness dramatic scenes—and what we actually have them do—sit in a circle in a drab classroom while discussing writing with people who are more similar to them than not. This disconnect is the central irony and challenge I have encountered while teaching undergraduate and graduate CNF workshops at three public universities over the past decade. Sometimes, in pedagogy papers like this one, writers refer to something called the “creative writing classroom,” but rarely are they referring to the physical space itself—cold, utilitarian, fluorescently lit cells built of cinder block and industrial-grade carpeting.
CNF’s seminal craft texts emphasize the need for writers to develop observational skills, interviewing techniques, and perhaps most of all, an ever-expanding suitcase of interesting life experiences that the writer can rummage through for writing material. In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate writes, “The essayist is fascinated with perception, which provides a never-ending source of speculative material.”1 In The Situation and The Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick notes, “The memoirist…must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts.”2 And in Creative Nonfiction Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, Philip Gerard argues that the best personal narratives come from writers who demonstrate “an absolutely accurate sense of the real world— not in some vague, generic way, but in its astonishing particulars.”3
I was reminded of Gerard’s quote one cold, November night while manning the helm of a three-hour-long evening workshop. As my students discussed the strengths and weaknesses of a draft, my mind drifted. I began to think about “the real world” in which I live and “its astonishing particulars.” I “accurately sensed” the dry erase board and its attendant markers in three colors: red, black, blue. I sensed the brown carpet, beige walls, and beige blinds affixed to tiny windows near the ceiling. Above my head, I sensed the menacing sway of the overhead projection screen, which, in a possible act of rebellion against its constrained environs, had a tendency to unfurl itself at random moments, much to the delight of my students. But, I wondered, would Gerard consider any of these particulars to be “astonishing”? Is this classroom, in which I was supposed to be teaching students how to write about real life, what Gornick imagined when she urged memoirists to “engage with the world”?
During my seven years of graduate school, first at an MFA program in CNF, then at a PhD program in English with a CNF dissertation, I was trained to make three basic assumptions about the CNF classroom: First, that our students come to us with topics that interest them. They have led interesting lives in interesting locales and have interesting problems and they are fully self-aware of what they find interesting and what bores them. Our only task, as their CNF professors, is to help them find the right structure and style and help them connect their pre-existing material, often but not exclusively personal narrative, to larger, societal phenomena. Second, our students, at the ripe age of eighteen to twenty-two, have had rich life experiences; all we need to do is show them how to craft those experiences into art. And third, that a course in CNF is limited to the reading, drafting, and workshopping processes. In other words, the CNF classroom is not a space to be mined for material. “Do not write about anyone in this workshop,” a professor in my MFA program reminded us, after one student wrote a scathing review of a date with another student in the program. An understandable rule under the circumstances. But is it true that the CNF workshop, long devoted to personal narrative, cannot also provide students with personal experience?
I want to pause here to make an argument concerning CNF pedagogy that I believe to be both obvious and radical: There can be no personal narrative without personal experience. And the quality of the personal experience—its novelty and significance to the writer describing it, as well as its novelty and significance to a national readership—matters.
I make this claim after years of interrogating the three assumptions enumerated above.
First, it is true that some of our students come into our classrooms on the first day of the semester with a fully formed idea of what topic they want to write about. But most don’t. What happens in my classroom is that after one week in which I introduce a few canonical texts in the personal essay, memoir, and reportage, I am pressed by the sheer size and number of my classes (which are filled to a twenty-two-student brim at the regional public university where I currently work, with a course load of four courses per semester) to move swiftly toward scheduling workshops so that we can squeeze every student onto the calendar. I ask for three volunteers to submit for the first round of workshop. The students who volunteer are the ones who already have ideas of what they want to write about. The other nineteen students look to the first three volunteers as guides. If the first three submissions are personal narratives on the topics of dating violence, transgender identity, and homesickness, as they were during my most recent semester, the remaining nineteen students will submit drafts that are disproportionately oriented towards the subject matter and style of these early volunteers. This is not a critique of the topics. This is a critique of our pedagogical assumption that eighteen to twenty-two year olds won’t be modeling their choice of topic and/or style from the three students who are confident enough to submit first.
Second, when it comes to personal narrative, traditional-age undergraduates (i.e. those between the ages of eighteen to twenty-two) are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of audience. I try to explain to them, from the perspective of a thirty-seven-year-old assistant professor, that the writer’s age and the reader’s age are an ever-changing proportion; considerations of audience have to change accordingly. For example, when I was twenty, most of my readers were older than me. At thirty-seven, I am reaching a parity of older and younger readers. If I am still alive and writing at seventy-five, most of my reading audience will be younger than I am. At each stage, I need to consider my relationship to my readership and adjust my idea of audience. But this is a near-impossible lesson to teach to the young. The seventy-five-year-old has an idea, even if it is just a vague memory, of what it is to be twenty. The twenty-year-old can barely grasp what life will be like after twenty-two. When the grandmother writes about the multiple romantic relationships in her past, as Abigail Thomas does in her revolutionary memoir Safekeeping, she has the ethos, distance, and wisdom of decades of experience.4 When my twenty-year-old students attempt to do this, the results are rarely revolutionary, often cringe inducing. While there is the occasional prophetic voice articulating a new development emblematic of generational change, or the rare master stylist who is able to write around a lack of experience, the overwhelming majority of twenty-year-olds writing about romantic love would be dismissed as immature or naive by anyone over the age of twenty-five, or as a publishing marketer might describe it, the entire population of people who buy books.
Third, a foundational principle of composition pedagogy, which I believe holds true for creative writing courses, is that all effective teaching practices are rooted in modeling. Put another way, every decision I make in my course should originate from my goals for my students’ final writing product. If the final product I desire is CNF writing that demonstrates my student’s ability to engage with the world outside of my classroom, it follows that at a portion of my instructional time should be spent modeling this engagement. I should be showing students how to seek out rich, surprising experiences and how to observe and record those experiences so that they can be incorporated into future drafts.
Once I’d unpacked the three basic assumptions that I was trained to bring to the CNF classroom, it seemed obvious to me that my students needed something more from my class than the traditional workshop method. But how does one incorporate lived experience into a creative writing course? Would such learning be best suited for introductory, intermediate, advanced, or graduate students? How would the syllabus for such a course be structured? I decided that the only way to move toward answering these questions was through trial and error. Enter the “Something to Write About” course.
While most university-level CNF courses focus on emulating the spaces of fiction and poetry—the reading, writing, and feedback circles of the Iowa Workshop Model—the “Something to Write About” course acknowledges what makes CNF unique: The need for direct observation and replication of real-life scenes. This approach side-steps academia’s familiar trappings (beige paint, brutalist architecture, the warm chemical smells of the nearby photocopier) and exploits academia’s surprises (the cadaver lab, the art gallery, overheard conversations at the food court). While some class time is devoted to traditional workshopping, the “Something to Write About” syllabus emphasizes experiences over texts, prompt-generation over polished final drafts.
Advanced undergraduates know the basics of CNF, but, as young writers, they can benefit most from a professor who models how to seek, observe, and record real-life experiences.
I designed the “Something to Write About” course specifically for the advanced undergraduate. My rationale was one of selection by elimination: Introductory courses are already stuffed with too many things to cover (all the basic principles of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction). Intermediate courses offer the first prolonged exposure students have to CNF, and reading discussions and workshop time are crucial to developing a foundation of knowledge and comfortability within the genre. Meanwhile, graduate courses are populated by adults who have more distance to reflect on personal experiences, as well as a firmer sense of which subjects will be most fruitful for exploration in writing. Thus, the advanced undergraduate workshop seemed the natural place to experiment with “Something to Write About.” Advanced undergraduates know the basics of CNF, but, as young writers, they can benefit most from a professor who models how to seek, observe, and record real-life experiences. That said, over the two years that I have developed this course, I have found myself incorporating an increasing amount of experiential and observational exercises into my courses at all levels.
The “Something to Write About” course requires some additional planning that is best completed a few months before the start of the semester. At that point, I email faculty members in sciences and the performing arts as well as staff on campus whose jobs are action-based and therefore would lend themselves well to writing scene (food prep, landscaping, custodial work, etc). The schedules of these faculty and staff members dictate the experiential portion of the syllabus, as well as the readings I assign (a trip to the art gallery, for example, might be accompanied by a reading of Janet Malcolm’s classic profile of David Salle, “Forty-One False Starts.”5) My particular campus’s location doesn’t lend itself well to off-campus field trips, and transportation for such trips is often expensive and prone to liability issues. While off-campus trips could greatly enhance this course, they are not necessary.
Once the experiential components of the course have been scheduled, I select days for reading discussions, small-group workshops, and whole-class workshops. Generally, the first half of the semester is spent alternating between experiential learning and small-group workshops, wherein students come to class with a short (250–500 word) piece of creative nonfiction inspired by the latest outside-the-classroom experience and get immediate feedback from their peers. They then choose one of these short exercises to develop into a longer work (1,500–2,500 words) to be submitted to whole-class workshop at the end of the semester.
The experiential components are framed by craft texts that offer techniques in observation, note taking, and interviewing. (The aforementioned textbook by Gerard is a particularly valuable resource for this). In addition, I encourage students to be attuned to their emotional responses to new experiences, and assign personal narratives in which the writer first describes scene and then reflects on the emotional impact of that scene, such as Jill Christman’s flash essay, “The Sloth.”6
Here, I provide a partial list of experiences that I have incorporated into this course:
- Dissecting a human cadaver at the campus prosectorium, guided by a biology professor.
- Taking a tour through the campus art gallery, guided by a visual arts professor.
- Taking a dance lesson and creating choreography, guided by a dance professor.
- Taking a voice and performance lesson from a music professor.
- Taking a virtual trip through the universe in the planetarium, guided by an astronomy professor.
- Taking a tour of campus while one student is blindfolded and the other works as a “scribe” to record the blindfolded student’s sensory and emotional experience. Once both partners have taken the tour while blindfolded, this exercise is repeated with foam earplugs.
- Having a “musical instrument day” where students write descriptions of the sounds produced by violins, ukuleles, flutes, etc.
- Having a “food” day, wherein students bring in a dish that has significance in their life and/or a food that is new to them.
- Assigning students to one-on-one interviews with staff engaged in action-based activities, including campus workers in food prep, landscaping, custodial work, etc.
All of these activities are completed within the eighty-minute class session and none requires leaving the campus. Immediately following each of these activities, students produce and compile writing prompts for themselves and share these prompts with each other.
These experiences also have the effect of allowing students to sense surprising details in otherwise ordinary surroundings.
Student writing from this course is imbued with the exterior observational detail that is often missing in my other creative nonfiction courses. In addition, students use the experiential components as a lens through which to examine pre-existing personal material. For example, one student used a photography exhibit in the art gallery as a structural conceit in which she examined her stages of grief after her mother’s death. The photographs were a sequential examination of crows as they roosted and then lifted off into flight. The student used the movement of the crows as a metaphor for the movement of her grief. Another student wrote about how the feeling of flying through the universe in the planetarium gave her new insight into her anxiety disorder. The specific observations within the art gallery, planetarium, and other outside-the-workshop spaces served as a grounding force to the more abstract subjects of grief and mental illness.
These experiences also have the effect of allowing students to sense surprising details in otherwise ordinary surroundings. During the blindfold exercise, for example, one student realized that our campus has a waterfall. He had walked by the waterfall every day for years, but it wasn’t until he heard it that he realized its existence. Another student “saw” a bicycle rack in front of the library that had, in fact, been removed years earlier. And yet, while describing the campus to her non-blindfolded partner, she realized that the bicycle rack remained intact in her visual memory. This experience became the lead-in to a personal essay on how our memories shape our perceptions that was grounded in the concrete experience of the blindfold exercise.
My own writing has benefitted as well. With a lifetime of fluorescently lit, beige-carpeted classrooms looming before me, I have often wondered about the effect such spaces have on my own creative nonfiction writing. What new and surprising experiences can I have on campus, and how can I write about them? While the “Something to Write About” syllabus was originally intended to enhance my students’ observational experiences and therefore their CNF writing, it has also offered me new inspiration. My essay, “Seven Women Hold a Man’s Brain in Their Hands,” published in Brevity, is a testament to the idea that learning how to write CNF should not be limited to the walls of our classrooms. These outside experiences with my students have taught me that in order to write about our own lives, we must first make the time and space to live them.
Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman is the author of Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, McSweeney’s, Brevity, and Hippocampus. She holds a BA in Middle Eastern studies and an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and a PhD in English from the University of North Texas. She teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University.
- Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay, (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), p. xxxv.
- Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), p. 14.
- Philip Gerard, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, (Long Grove: Waveland Press, 1996), p. 15.
- Abigail Thomas, Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life, (New York: Anchor Books, 2000).
- Janet Malcolm, “Forty-One False Starts,” Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick, (New York: Random House, 2000), pp. 504–530.
- Jill Christman, “The Sloth,” Brevity, Issue, p. 26, https://www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/past%20issues/brev26hotcold/christman_sloth.html.